“We must focus on improving our competitiveness”

Dean Barrow

Elected to office in 2008 as leader of the United Democratic Party, Dean Barrow talks to Global about the challenges of the economic crisis, the reasons for his government’s nationalisation of the country’s leading telecommunications company and its current measures to tackle crime. He also discusses Belize’s relations with its neighbours

Global: Belize’s economy has been hit quite sharply by some of the consequences of the global economic slowdown, although it now seems to be recovering a little. How long do you think it will be before economic conditions return to a more healthy and sustainable outlook?

Dean Barrow: Most of the world’s economies have been hit hard by the global slowdown. The economic crisis has, however, provided a unique opportunity for Belize to tackle various reforms in the system including financial debt management and the way government does business. Projections for GDP growth show that it is expected to be under 3 percent for the next few years. The international financial institutions have seen the efforts we have made at reform and have responded positively by providing co-funding for various programmes and projects Belize has proposed.

What is the vision for the future of the Belize economy over the next ten years, and what do you think the leading sectors will be in the future?

Belize is almost at the point of completion of the long-term vision statement, Horizon 2030, which is premised on democratic governance, education for development, citizen security and access to justice, health an increased focus on the productive sectors and care for the environment. The ultimate goal is the building of a resilient economy.

We first need to continue to confront the current situation, both the reality and as it is perceived by the government and the people. Some of the challenges are the limited and low-wage jobs, the high cost of living, importing more than we export and inadequate access to technology. The strategies to address these include strengthening the domestic market as a springboard for exports, which would mean the production of high quality goods and services demanded by the export market. In other words, we must focus on improving our competitiveness both in the domestic and external markets.

The emphasis will not be exclusively on exports from large producers as there is work to be done on the accelerated development of the small business sector, which has the potential to be a significant employer of labour. In terms of the leading sectors, the focus is on agriculture and agribusiness, supporting sustainable fisheries and building a sustainable and responsible tourism sector. We will also adopt technologies that support environmental preservation – ‘green technology’ if you will – but not at the expense of development.

Is the financial support the government recently provided to Belize Sugar Industries sufficient to save the sugar industry from collapse? And is there pressure on you to provide similar support to other agricultural producers?

No, not by itself, but we firmly believe that it will provide the seed money needed to commence the cane grinding operations for the new season. It will also demonstrate the level of confidence and commitment the government has in the industry. We would ask the existing creditors to take note of this commitment and to renew their support to the industry, which, until recent times has been quite efficient and profitable. We are optimistic that with this financial support and with the commitment of the farmers to improve sugar cane quality and quantity, the industry will be restored to its premier position in the Belizean economy. I should add that we have not felt any pressures to provide similar support for other agricultural producers as the situation in the sugar industry is a unique one.

Why did your government nationalize Belize Telemedia?

There was never an intention or policy to nationalise any company when we took office in 2008. It turned out that we were left with no other choice but to nationalize the leading telecommunications company in August 2009, when all efforts failed to reach an agreement with the then owners that would be in the best interest of the people of Belize. I believe it was summed up best at the special sitting of the House of Representatives in 2009 when I stated: “This is no ideology, this is not triumphalism, this is a country in particular circumstances reaching the end of its patience and doing a singular necessary righteous thing to protect its national interest. It is not part of any pattern, part of no new philosophy; it is plain and simple, a special measure for a special case.”

Your government has pledged to provide good governance and transparency. What have been the main achievements in this direction so far?

The United Democratic Party was indeed elected on a platform of reform, transparency, accountability and good governance, and to that end we have made many strides. Shortly after taking office we introduced the sixth Constitution Amendment Bill, which called for a three-term limit for prime ministers, a recall mechanism for elected officials, and the removal of the exclusive power of the government to decide when to call a referendum. These are all now enshrined in the law.

With the assistance of our multilateral partners, specifically the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, we have embarked on a major public financial management reform programme aimed at strengthening our public finance systems. We have also passed a fiscal responsibility law which requires the government to make periodic financial reports to parliament and the general public, and we expect to continue working on improving the revenue and expenditure management systems.

Belize has been vulnerable to the twin scourges of drug smuggling and gun crime. What measures are in place to combat these social ills and what more does your government hope to do in this area?

There is no doubt that over the past decade we have seen a steady increase in gun violence resulting from gang wars and the drug trade. We have doubled our efforts to directly address the enforcement and legislative aspects while working on the social solutions to address the root causes of crime. The government has enacted legislation to increase the incarceration period for gun-related offenses, extended the non-bailable period for gun-related offences, restricted the classes of guns that can be licensed and raised the minimum age for a licensed gun holder.

With respect to drugs, we have improved greatly the coordination efforts, and have combined forces with the military for special search and seizure operations, which has yielded great success with drug busts. We have put in place a new gang intervention unit to address the gang-related drug and gun violence issues. Part of the drug problem is, of course, our location, situated as we are between producers in the south and consumers to our north. An important component of our counter-narcotics effort must, therefore, include regional and hemispheric cooperation.

In June, we launched the RESTORE Belize programme, which is a crime prevention initiative that operates directly out of the Office of the Prime Minister. It functions as a coordinating agency to pull together all government agencies to address the complex array of institutional, social and economic issues that have contributed to the current crisis of violence and crime in Belize. There has been notable support for this initiative by the Belizean people. RESTORE Belize has worked from its inception on the formation of functional public-private partnerships to harness the tremendous public desire for change.

Is there a timetable and an acceptable process for resolving the territorial claims made by Guatemala?

Belize achieved its independence on the basis of full support of the UN General Assembly, which resolved that this should be done with sovereignty and full territorial integrity and called on Belize and Guatemala to continue efforts post independence to resolve their differences. After many years of exhaustive attempts at finding a negotiated solution to the Guatemalan claim, it was on the advice of the Secretary General of the Organization of

American States that both governments decided to submit the dispute for adjudication and final settlement to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The agreement to submit Guatemala’s territorial claim to the ICJ was signed by Belize and Guatemala in December 2008 and it requires both governments to submit to their respective electorates, in referenda on the same day, the question of whether they approve that the matter be submitted to the ICJ for final settlement. Because the referendum in each country is to be held simultaneously, the two governments must agree on a date that is suitable to both, and discussions are under way to this end.

How are relations with other regional neighbours, such as Mexico and Honduras?

It is in the national interest for Belize to maintain good relations with its neighbours and in this respect tremendous advances have been made over the years to build on functional cooperation efforts in the region. Relations with Mexico and Honduras have traditionally been very good. Belize became a full member of the Central American System of Integration (SICA) in 2000 and is a founding member of the Mesoamerica Project (previously known as Plan Puebla Panama). SICA seeks to achieve sustainable development through cooperation and integration of the seven countries of the isthmus (Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama) on the basis of peace, democracy and security – the Dominican Republic has now become an associate member. The Mesoamerica Project is an ambitious project designed to connect, by a modern network of roads, electricity and telecommunications, all countries from Mexico to Panama. Mexico and Colombia are also active partners in this.

What is the outlook for achieving gradually closer cooperation with the Caribbean Community?

As a founding member of the Caribbean Community (Caricom), Belize participates in all initiatives under this group. As a bloc, Caricom has been successful in coordinating foreign policy in matters of global and regional importance, which enables members to speak with one voice on many issues on the international agenda. It has made significant progress in advancing the creation of a single market and economy, which now allows the free movement of people, services and goods throughout the region. Belize currently holds the chairmanship of the Cariforum Group (Caricom plus the Dominican Republic and Cuba) and members of this group, except Cuba, signed the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union in 2008. The EPA is a free trade agreement that encompasses development cooperation to modernize trade and trade related facilities in Cariforum countries.

About the author:

Dean Barrow is Prime Minister of Belize


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